The struggle to survive in a French colonial prison

SR 2061
461, Take 1
Interview with Nguyen Khac Ham
Please tell us how you got involved in giving out revolutionary handbills and how you got arrested.
Nguyen Khac Ham:
During the 1939-1940 period there was a working class movement here struggling for pay hikes and decrease of working hours. In 1939 especially, the French wanted to draft us into the colonial army and send us over to Europe to repair their war making implements for them, now that the French and German war was going on.
But we protested and refused to go. So there was a working class movement in opposition to the French attempt to send us over to France. As a result, we handed out a lot of leaflets. At night, we went to the city of Vinh and spread the leaflets out in all of the various factories. Subsequently, I got arrested and tortured. The French secret police at that time had many barbaric forms of torture.
I was hanged up in mid air with a rope and beaten with sticks in the meantime. This went on for two weeks. The beating would start around 7 p.m. and ended around 9 p.m. or 8 p.m. on some days. I refused to divulge any information. At that time, if you gave them a lot of information, they still kept you in prison. And if you did not divulge any information, they would give you a sentence. After a month of this kind of interrogation, they sentenced me to twelve years of imprisonment.
For cadres whom they considered low level, they had them jailed in Lao Binh . But for cadres whom they thought to be more active like me, they exiled us to Ban Me Thuot. In Ban Me Thuot" from 1931 to 1939 many political prisoners were killed because of the struggle in prison. The Ban Me Thuot" area was formerly an area inhabited by minority people and an area where the climate was extremely unfavorable.
The French exiled Communist political prisoners there in order to use their labor to open up the forest and build the city of Ban Me Thuot". This was because they did not have to pay a penny for this kind of development. Secondly they exiled us there in order to have us killed by the unfavorable climate and terrain and the hard labor. After we arrived, many of us contracted malarial disease and urinated blood (resulting from hemorrhages caused by a virus transmitted by the mosquitoes) and died in large number as a result.
But we staged continual struggles there. There are some in the Central Committee now like Mr. Nguyen Duy Trinh who had been there before me and who, subsequently, got additional sentences as a result of the struggles in the prison and were exiled to the penal island of Con Lon. But for political prisoners of our generation who got sent up there in 1940, the conditions were extremely harsh. There were six main cells in the prison and we were placed in long rows in these cells with our feet shackled to long cangues.
In the morning, after the gong sounded, they unlocked our feet from the cangues and herded us out of the cells to make us work. While working, we usually got whipped. The food situation was very bad. But we continued to struggle. In 1937, there had been a huge struggle in the prison. And although many people were given additional sentences and exiled elsewhere, the food situation improved somewhat.
But in 1939, during the period of the French-German war, they cut down on the food ration. As a result, the food situation was extremely critical. And so we had to stage continual struggle. When we went on strike and presented them with demands for more food, they had us beaten up very badly. They used the Rhade (an ethnic minority in the area) soldiers to beat us up.